Colorado Coronavirus Update: Colorado Will Step In To Test Greeley Meatpacking Workers

Gov. Jared Polis said officials at the JBS Greeley meatpacking plant declined to test all employees at their plant despite promises to do so and despite state officials saying they would provide the tests free of cost.

“We continue to encourage JBS to test every employee,” Polis said Wednesday at a press conference. “Absent them doing that, we’ve made the testing available for free to residents in a very convenient way just a mile from the plant.”

Polis said more than 1,000 people have been tested at the free site.

Coronavirus transmission at the plant has led to seven deaths and 280 infections. On April 10, Weld County health officials warned JBS leadership about COVID-19 transmission at the plant. A few days later, Weld health officials shut the plant down. It’s unclear what changed to prompt the move. JBS and Weld County Public Health Department officials have declined several opportunities to comment.

“To be clear, if JBS is willing to test all employees, we would be happy to work with them on making sure they have the supplies to do that,” Polis said. “We can’t just go on their premises and test people, that’s why we did it a mile away.”

Polis said JBS officials backed away from an initial plan to test all employees and decided to just close for two weeks instead. It reopened in late April. Polis said state officials would work “around” JBS if they need to in order to make sure all employees get tested.

“These are folks who live and work in Greeley, and we’re just as worried about their neighbors, their friends, store owners who serve them, and many others, in addition to those who work directly at the JBS plant,” Polis said.

The governor provided a larger update Wednesday on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his “safer-at-home” order.

It’s the first week that many Coloradans could go back to work but with strict precautions in place. Retail stores and personal services reopened May 1 with social distancing in place. Businesses could reopen with up to 50 percent of its staff working onsite.  

He said it’s extremely likely COVID-19 was circulating in the state before the first confirmed case was detected. Undetected cases likely manifested as symptoms of pneumonia. The first case in Colorado was detected at the beginning of March.

Colorado now has 921 deaths and more than 17,800 coronavirus cases. The daily COVID-19 infection rate has declined with a 2 percent growth rate and less than a 1 percent growth rate of hospitalizations. The number of Coloradans hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 has fallen to 636, it's lowest point since April 1.

“We are bending the curve. We have saved lives in Colorado. We will save lives in Colorado,” Polis said. “If we slack off, it means more unnecessary deaths.” 

People not following the rules will also mean more economic interruptions, Polis said. 

Laura Rosenthal, nurse practitioner and assistant professor in the College of Nursing, has been taking care of COVID-19 patients. She spoke during the press conference as part of National Nurses Day and begged people to continue their due diligence and stay home.

“COVID-19 is unlike anything I’ve experienced in my 20 years,” Rosenthal said. “It affects all people.” 

She said people should still wear face coverings, practice social distancing and be cautious. 

“There is still potential for rapid disease spread if we are not alert to our surroundings,” she said.  

The state now has more personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and gowns. FEMA has given Colorado two Battelle sterilization systems to disinfect PPE. Polis said Colorado has 2.47 million surgical masks and 534,474 N95 masks. Nursing homes have received additional equipment including eye protection. 

Polis told Colorado Matters in early May that he eased stay-at-home restrictions because people couldn’t afford to stay home any longer.

The governor said the state has increased its testing capacity from 160 tests per day in March to having the capacity to do between 5,000 and 10,000 per day. Even if Colorado has the capacity to do over 10,000 tests a day, it can’t because of supply constraints. Polis said people should only be having one-third of the interactions they had in January and February.